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Dirk Koetter's style; plus Cam Newton, David Johnson and more

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As we head into the thick of the preseason, NFL Media's network of reporters gets you up to speed with the hottest news and notes from across the league, including:

» The Panthers' post-Josh Norman plans.

» Why Amari Cooper can be even better in Year 2.

» The strong impression DeMarco Murray's making in Tennessee.

But first, a look at what Dirk Koetter is doing differently in Tampa ...

TAMPA, Fla. -- It was pouring outside for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' first practice of the week, so they boarded busses for what amounted to a moveable feast of football. Bearing their own play clock and a lot of cones, the Bucs crossed a causeway and alighted on Tropicana Field -- the dark, slant-roofed ode to shiny artificial turf and the St. Petersburg home of Major League Baseball's road-tripping Rays.

There was no music or fans for this practice, so you could hear Dirk Koetter swearing more clearly than on most days. And when it was over, you could hear something else clearly: Koetter's disappointment that a padded practice had been forsaken for a softer-hitting one in shells (so that players would not hit the turf as much).

There is not much reading between the lines necessary with Koetter. Last week, he startled beat reporters when, unprompted, he said he was going to end the mystery and tell them who the No. 3 receiver was going to be (it's Adam Humphries). Not surprisingly, this makes him popular with reporters and players. In fact, according to general manager Jason Licht, the straight talk is at least part of the reason why Koetter has this job and Lovie Smith no longer does.

After a six-win season (ending with a four-game losing streak) and rumored disagreements about how personnel should be used, Smith was, somewhat surprisingly, axed -- and Koetter, who had been the offensive coordinator, was elevated to the top job. The Bucs already had placed young quarterback Jameis Winston's future in Koetter's hands, and now they have done the same for the rest of the franchise. The coaching change remains a delicate topic for Licht, and he chooses his words carefully.

"It's never easy to do that," Licht said. "Everybody has respect for Lovie. I took a lot of comfort in the reaction when we hired Dirk: [It] was over-the-top good. Players -- it was nothing to do with Lovie, but about the hiring of the new coach -- they were very, very positive. From that perspective, it was about as seamless as you could go."

It is most important that it be seamless for Winston, who, Licht says, mentioned multiple times last season to the GM how much he loved Koetter, how much he needed Koetter. The second season is a critical one for any quarterback's development, and the connection between Winston and Koetter is such that the coach will retain play-calling responsibility.

"Jameis wants to be coached hard, and Dirk knows no other way," Licht said. " 'That's terrible', he'll say. 'That's awful -- get out.' Instead of, 'We can do better.' It's black and white with him."

There wasn't much gray area for Koetter before he became the head coach, either. As offensive coordinator, Koetter didn't have much interaction with the defense, and so he admits that he did not know the name of every player on that side of the ball last year.

"I'm not proud of that, but it's true," Koetter said. "But you know, I knew who Gerald McCoy was, I knew who Lavonte David was, I knew who Alterraun Verner was. In OTAs, I sat in on defensive installs -- I learned a lot. I sat in on all the special teams installs -- I learned a lot. That part's been good. But I'm where I am because of what I know about offensive football. I'm going to be more involved there."

Koetter, at age 57, waited a long time for this opportunity. He was a college head coach (at Boise State and Arizona State) for nine years and a well-regarded offensive coordinator in the NFL (with the Jaguars, Falcons and Bucs) for nine years after that. But like Bruce Arians and Mike Zimmer before him, time seemed to be working against Koetter as each NFL hiring cycle featured the usual mix of surprise hires and predictable retreads. Now that Koetter has the chance, his approach bears a striking resemblance to that employed by Arians in Arizona and Zimmer in Minnesota -- like them, Koetter seems determined to do things his way.

The Bucs will be delighted if Koetter produces the same results Arians and Zimmer have enjoyed because Tampa Bay hasn't experienced much success at all since Jon Gruden's firing nearly a decade ago. Incredibly, Gruden, whose last year was the 9-7 campaign of 2008, was the last coach to make it to a fourth season in Tampa (he lasted seven, one more than Tony Dungy).

For Licht, personally, this constant churn is deeply unfamiliar. He has worked with Don Shula, Bill Belichick and Andy Reid, and he was part of the interview process that led to the Cardinals hiring Arians. He craves the longevity that accompanies and spurs success. This was not a hire, he said, that meant the Bucs would see how it goes for two years and then reassess. He thinks Koetter is the man to end the cycle that swallowed Raheem Morris, Greg Schiano and then Smith -- three disparate personalities who met the same fate -- and plunged the Bucs into a continuous roller coaster of rebuilding that has kept them buried in the NFC South as the Carolina Panthers have surged.

"I had some things to draw on: what made them successful, what are common traits beyond Xs and Os," Licht said of his earlier stops. "I thought those guys were all really authentic people -- they weren't trying to mimic somebody, they weren't trying to be a person they worked for. That's what I saw in Dirk. He's very rational. He's able to adapt. But most importantly, he tells it like it is. If you're afraid of what's going to come out of his mouth with an answer, you shouldn't ask him."

After nearly a decade of upheaval, the Bucs have to hope Koetter has the right answers.

-- Judy Battista

And now, the rest of this week's notes from NFL Media's reporters:

ARIZONA CARDINALS: A budding backfield star. Running back David Johnson won't be flying under the radar this season. A third-round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, he surprised plenty of people with his all-around skills as a rookie, gaining 1,636 total yards and scoring 13 touchdowns. The hype surrounding him is only going to grow in his second pro season.

"I'm afraid to talk about him because I might get him hurt," joked Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians. "But he can run it 25 times and he can catch it 15 times. The sky is the limit for his ability, because he can do so many things. I don't want to run him in the ground early, because we have Chris [Johnson] and Andre [Ellington]. We have a great group of running backs, so one guy doesn't have to get all the carries early in the season."

-- Jeffri Chadiha

The Cards' versatile new toy. The Cardinals made one of the blockbuster trades of the season when they acquired outside linebacker Chandler Jones from New England in exchange for guard Jonathan Cooper and a second-round pick. Jones fills their biggest need from last season -- dominant pass rusher -- but he's also excited to showcase his entire skill set.

"That's what I did back in New England," said Jones, who has 36 sacks in four NFL seasons. "[Patriots] coach [Bill] Belichick would ask me if I could play here or there, and I would tell him what I can do. Did I like it? Of course. It showed my versatility. And if there's a situation where Coach Arians would ask me to play anywhere, I would do it."

-- Jeffri Chadiha

Nkemdiche turning heads. The Cardinals didn't think the off-field issues of defensive end Robert Nkemdiche were enough to keep them from selecting him 29th overall in this year's draft. Now that they've seen a little bit of him this offseason -- Nkemdiche has been nursing a high ankle sprain since the start of camp -- they're even more thrilled about his potential when he's healthy.

"Some people thought he was the next [former Cardinals defensive tackle] Darnell Dockett, but he's quicker, faster and more physical than Dockett ever was," Cardinals GM Steve Keim said. "He has tremendous twitch and explosiveness through his hips. He definitely has the ability to take over games. He has to become more consistent in feet and hands, but he just has to learn how to play the game at the pro level."

-- Jeffri Chadiha

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ATLANTA FALCONS: Tour de Dimitroff. Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff is a cycling enthusiast who usually spends the weeks leading up to camp biking in Colorado. This year, he followed his passion a bit further -- to the Tour de France, where he was a guest of Team Sky. Yes, that's the team of this year's winner, Chris Froome.

Dimitroff was in Team Sky's car the day Froome -- who has won three of the past four Tour de France races -- was involved in a multi-racer crash that forced him to ditch his bike and start running while he waited for his replacement.

"It's Bastille Day, so the crowd is already in a frenzy, and they really converge on the race right there. We were right there when [Froome] started running, and it was a wild scene," said Dimitroff, who served as the Patriots' director of college scouting from 2003 through '07. "It was the most exhilarating sporting event I've ever witnessed, aside from the two Super Bowls I was a part of."

-- Mike Garafolo

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CAROLINA PANTHERS: No Norman ... no problem? The Panthers felt good enough about the depth at cornerback in this year's draft that it played a role in their decision to eventually let All-Pro Josh Norman leave in free agency. Carolina expects big things from the three cornerbacks selected in April: second-round pick James Bradberry, third-rounder Daryl Worley and fifth-rounder Zack Sanchez.

"To me, it's reasonable to feel a rookie could start at any position," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. "Our quarterback [Cam Newton] started as a rookie. Our middle linebacker [Luke Kuechly] started as a rookie.

"We've played so many young guys, so I think it's reasonable to expect these guys to play. They've done a great job and they've made a commitment. When we ended OTAs and minicamps, they stayed here and worked. They developed that bond that you need to have in this kind of situation."

-- Jeffri Chadiha

2015 was no fluke for No. 1. A big question surrounding the Panthers is whether quarterback Cam Newton can continue playing at the MVP level he reached last season. It's a topic that Carolina GM Dave Gettleman doesn't spend any time dwelling on.

"People think Cam made this crazy leap," Gettleman said. "He's been getting better every year. You have to remember he only played one year of college football. This game isn't easy, and the physical peak for most people is between 27 and 32 years old. (Newton is 27.) Once you build a strong foundation, you can grow your game. He's doing that."

-- Jeffri Chadiha

Guarding against complacency. Rivera has been noticing an unsettling trend among his younger players: Too many of them are acting like it's going to be easy to challenge for another NFC championship. In fact, Rivera had to call his team together earlier this week to preach the importance of preparation in a league where they won't fly under the radar. His veterans echoed that message.

"We're going to be as special as we allow ourselves to be," Pro Bowl outside linebacker Thomas Davis said. "That comes with putting the work in. We have to understand that just because we've been able to develop something here, that doesn't just mean it's going to happen. Everybody is going to be gunning to prove that we're not as good as advertised."

-- Jeffri Chadiha

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DENVER BRONCOS: Miller rounding into mental shape. Von Miller will not play in the Broncos' first preseason game. But the reason he won't hit the field Thursday in Chicago against the Bears isn't because he's out of shape after skipping the Broncos' offseason workouts. In fact, Miller believes he's in the best shape of his NFL career.

"I haven't been in shape like this since coming out of college," Miller told me. "My conditioning, running to the ball and running here doing the conditioning in the weight room, it's never been like that."

It's no surprise Miller won't play in a game where younger, less established players are fighting for roster spots. For the last week of training camp, Miller has been practicing for roughly an hour and a half before either watching the final portion of practice or heading to the weight room in the team facility. When he is participating, he's dominant. After signing the richest non-quarterback contract in NFL history, Miller is having arguably the best camp of anyone on the roster. He told me he's found a perfect blend of size and strength without compromising his incredible speed around the edge.

Where Miller feels he isn't performing up to his high standards is mentally.

"Every day I'm at practice I remember something new that I used to do," Miller said. "It's just exposure to the game. I'm ready to go out there and play, but the Von I know I can be, the Von I want to be, I'm not there yet."

Miller expects to be himself mentally by the time the 49ers roll into Dove Valley in the middle of next week when the two teams practice against one another before they square off in Week 2 of the preseason.

-- James Palmer

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HOUSTON TEXANS: Miller's big move. The biggest transition for new Texans running back Lamar Miller hasn't involved learning a new offense. It's living in some place other than South Florida. Miller grew up in that area, went to school at Miami and spent the last four seasons with the Dolphins before signing as an unrestricted free agent with Houston.

"It took me a while to settle in at first. During OTAs, I was going home every weekend or I'd fly some people up," Miller said. "But just being here makes me focus more. In Miami, I would do football and then spend time with my family. Out here, all I have is football. It will make me be more in tune to what I have to do to help us win."

-- Jeffri Chadiha

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JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS: Better on both sides of the ball. The offense is stacked, and I expected to see a dominant unit when I visited Jaguars practice. Instead, I saw batted balls, interceptions and a fairly even battle. This is a positive development. Because after years of spending draft and free agent capital on offense, Jacksonville has a defense that has finally caught up.

Finally, there is the talent on the defensive side of the ball to stand up to opposing teams. And the Jags are big -- I was surprised by how long and athletic they are in person. Rookies Myles Jack and Jalen Ramsey, immediate starters, will help, but few players have raised as many eyebrows as pass-rusher Dante Fowler. Coming off a rookie year lost to an ACL tear, Fowler has been dominant at times, tormenting offensive tackles in practice and making those in Jacksonville think they hit it big with last year's third overall pick.

-- Ian Rapoport

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LOS ANGELES RAMS: Jenkins' replacement groomed for prime time. Rather than load up on free agents, the Rams created some, either by cutting players or letting players walk. Notably, cornerback Janoris Jenkins, a former second-round pick, was part of the Giants' spending splash and not the Rams' retention plans. But when you watch practice, you can start to see why Los Angeles might have been willing to let Jenkins go. Lamarcus Joyner, the diminutive (5-8, 184 pounds) 2014 second-round pick from Florida State, was installed as a starting corner, and there is a reason for it. Joyner can be downright nasty.

Broken down by defensive coordinator Gregg Williams as a rookie, Joyner has slowly become the player the Rams hoped he'd be when they drafted him. Joyner had to learn the ways of an NFL player and be willing to do so. It took time. But once Williams got him to get it, he's thrived. He can be seen jawing after players, but -- more importantly -- also competing between the whistles. In this defense, he'll have the opportunity to make plays opposite franchise-tagged veteran Trumaine Johnson.

-- Ian Rapoport

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OAKLAND RAIDERS: Cooper healthy and ready to rumble. As a rookie, receiver Amari Cooper eclipsed 1,000 yards and provided the Raiders with the hope that he can be among the game's finest. And yet, he can barely watch the game tape from 2015, because he doesn't recognize himself. Why? Because Cooper played most of last year with painful plantar fasciitis -- never complaining, rarely practicing, still performing. That's just how he is. So brace yourself, because Cooper is back and healthy and doing ridiculous things. When I visited Raiders camp in Napa, California, I saw him burn free-agent pickup Sean Smith, despite tight coverage down the sideline. Cooper grabbed a ball over Smith and raced 50 yards for a score -- and he didn't see the ball until it was one foot from his face. It was an incredible catch, yet no one batted an eyelash, perhaps because it's normal for him.

-- Ian Rapoport

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SAN DIEGO CHARGERS: Bolts optimistic about bouncing back. For a team that finished 4-12 last season, the Chargers don't have the feel of a rebuilding organization. They added complementary pieces, rather than aim for an overhaul. Coaches and executives discuss acquisitions like defensive lineman Brandon Mebane and center Matt Slauson as being key, rather than flaunting a free-agent haul that wasn't there. Perhaps that's because injuries, rather than lack of talent, led to last year's slide.

The belief is that tinkering -- and a little more intensity -- will get San Diego back competing for the AFC West title. Expect a little more balance on offense, too. Second-year running back Melvin Gordon looks to be at full strength after undergoing microfracture surgery on his knee in January, and the return of offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt -- in 2013, when Whisenhunt last served in that role, San Diego ranked fifth in overall offense, fourth in passing yards and 13th in rushing yards -- should create balance. If Gordon keeps his confidence up, look out.

-- Ian Rapoport

Gates and Rivers on the verge of making history. Veteran tight end Antonio Gates has caught 77 touchdown passes from Philip Rivers. If the two connect for nine touchdowns this season, they'll pass the 85 touchdowns Jerry Rice caught from Steve Young in San Francisco. The duo would then trail only Marvin Harrison and Peyton Manning for the most touchdowns by a quarterback-pass catcher combination in NFL history.

Gates joked with me that he thought he and Rivers would be passing Joe Montana and Rice as opposed to Young and Rice. When I told him Harrison and Manning combined for 112 touchdowns in Indianapolis, he laughed and said Rivers is aging a lot better than he is, but to reach that number they'll both have to play with the Chargers well into their 40s. Gates is 36 and Rivers will turn 35 toward the end of the season.

-- James Palmer

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SEATTLE SEAHAWKS: Keeping Wilson clean. No quarterback was hit more the Russell Wilson last season, and he was sacked 45 times -- third-most in the NFL. It's something the Seahawks are obviously aware of and have to limit in 2016. This falls both on the offensive line and on Wilson himself.

"There are times where we know there is going to be a free guy, and it's incumbent on Russell to know who that guy is," offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell told me.

On those plays, Bevell believes it's up to Wilson to either make that guy miss or move away from that pressure and get the ball off before there is an opportunity for him to be hit. The Seahawks know unintended hits will happen. But the others, Wilson should recognize and avoid.

Since Seattle's game against the Bears in Wilson's rookie season, the mindset has been to "take the handcuffs off and let him play," as Bevell put it. The Seahawks let Russell be Russell, but with parameters. With that freedom comes the responsibility of limiting unnecessary hits and staying healthy. In Bevell's opinion, Wilson's mind is "off the charts." Now he must use it to keep his body off the turf.

-- James Palmer

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TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS: Post-Lovie defense a strength? A season after startling the league by firing head coach and defensive guru Lovie Smith, the Bucs should, in fact, feature a much-improved unit. At the least, it'll be a more talented one for defensive coordinator Mike Smith. Free-agent signee Robert Ayers has been a bit of a badass in practice, providing that edge the Bucs have lacked while helping tutor rookie Noah Spence. Ayers lives on the edge, and that's welcome.

And then there is the case of Brent Grimes. After three Pro Bowl seasons in Miami, the veteran corner was released in March and faced a difficult market based on several factors, including his wife's Twitter account. Yet, he signed with the Bucs and has been a revelation. Appearing young and ultra athletic, the 33-year-old Grimes may live to torment the Dolphins (who probably did have to bid him adieu). Given how effective Tampa's offense will be, the D gives the Bucs hope.

-- Ian Rapoport

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TENNESSEE TITANS: DeMarco Murray leader at running back. Few cheered when Mike Mularkey got hired in Tennessee. Fans didn't, and neither did coaches who wondered why a head coach would get a third try. And yet ... there's something intriguing about what appears to be the NFL's most boring hire. The Titans are going to run the ball, or so they hope, and force people to tackle them. In a league where teams don't always practice tackling, having to stop a smashmouth attack won't be easy. Given the remade offensive line and addition of veteran back DeMarco Murray, facing the Titans will, at least, be uncomfortable. This notion will cause eyerolls in Philly, but Murray's addition was a blessing for the locker room, and he's the clear No. 1 on the field. The coaches realized that when they rolled in at 7 one offseason morning and found Murray leading an offensive line meeting -- by himself. Second-round pick Derrick Henry needs to mature, but the raw tools are there. The belief is the Titans will be better -- and at worst, they are going to be annoying to play.

-- Ian Rapoport



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